The early days of Trump’s presidency have been strange, bewildering the media with errors so unforced they appear deliberate. Starting with the new press secretary’s weirdly combative conference on Saturday, at which alternative facts were presented, and continuing through a meandering series of appearances and sternly-worded executive orders of uncertain consequence, they have managed to raise an already-high alarm level in newsrooms.
The most established of these media have now taken to calling out falsehoods plainly, which is admirable but highly unlikely to change anyone’s opinion of Trump. Given what has already come to light, the chances that exaggerating his inauguration attendance will finally sway public opinion is remote.1 The New York Times’ newly-discovered scolding tone accomplishes little really, other than to reassure those already in the fold that it will now hold Trump to account, the impact of which might be, to the Gray Lady’s horror, nothing.
So what explains this behavior from the new administration? One option is that Trump’s side believes what it is saying, but that strains credulity; whatever their blind spots, the Trump team is not to anyone’s knowledge actually blind, and they are fully capable of gauging staggeringly obvious differences in crowd sizes without the need for an expert count. Another possibility is that this is a more or less calculated way to toy with the media, since the Times, Washington Post, et al. are now in an unusual bind. They can:
- Walk out of press conferences/refuse to cover events/ignore Trump staff, but this would further marginalize them, leading to a heroic but irrelevant stance from the sidelines.2
- Continue to participate in press conferences and other interactions but maintain a combative stance, which would make them look, well, contentious and no longer above the fray.
- Troll the new administration by returning like for like, which would only make them look silly, given their carefully-cultivated self-regard. This would be a category mismatch, like Pavarotti covering the latest Bieber chart-topper.
Inaugural parade viewership is a mildly interesting data point about which most have no strong opinion. So why draw more attention to it?3 It would be unsurprising were Trump to pick a fight on whether his necktie was knotted in a half-Windsor or a four-in-hand (when the real question should be why these are invariably six inches too long, as if amidst all the gilt of Trump Tower there is nary a full-length mirror to be found).
Is there a cunning mastermind behind the scenes orchestrating all of this as part of some grander plan? Given how complex the apparatus of government is, and how close the campaign and now days-old presidency has skated unnecessarily to the precipice, this does not appear to be so. Perhaps Trump and his representatives have been merely testing the boundaries of public discourse, and discovering to both their and our surprise that they do not exist, and that is the most sobering realization of all.
- “What’s that you say, he made up attendance numbers? Well I can overlook the bankruptcies and the lecherous comments, but lying about our grand civic pageant is just beyond the pale.” ↩
- And though they might be able to ignore his spokespeople, they can’t so easily do that to Trump himself, who remains the one and only President of these United States. ↩
- It may be that Trump is immune to the Streisand Effect; in fact it may actually make him stronger. ↩